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My books can be purchased as e-books for only $1.99. If interested, just click here: Books.
Match Play is a golf/suspense novel. Dust of Autumn is a bloody one set in upstate New York. Prairie View is set in South Dakota, with a final scene atop Rattlesnake Butte. Life in the Arbor is a children's book about Rollie Rabbit and his friends (on about a fourth grade level). The Black Widow involves an elaborate extortion scheme. Doggy-Dog World is my memoir. And ES3 is a description of my method for examining English sentence structure.
In case anyone is interested in any of my past posts, an archive list can be found at the bottom of this page.
My newest novel, Happy Valley, can be found here.

Monday, October 31

Bull or Bear Market Coming?

I think this image says it all—Halloween can kiss my pumpkin fanny, and the coming election can too. Oh, yes, and Donald Trump can also purse his lips and press them to my bottom. There, Halloween done for another year.

Election news has quieted down recently. Not nearly as many letters and articles praising or denouncing the two candidates. What’ll I do when it’s all over and I don’t have any scabs to pick at? For almost six months, Donald has been my scab and now he’s about to go away. Donald is still crying about rigged results, and WikiLeaks has thrown a quiet monkey wrench into the works with more e-mails found and released and FBI director James Comey’s notification to Congress about his investigation into them. Tempests in teapots. This close to Election Day, almost nothing will change the way people vote. And millions have already voted with early ballots. It’s a done deal. Hillary may even win by a wider margin than is now projected. I have a feeling that some of those who now so loudly support Trump may have secret second thoughts when they get in the booth, maybe not voting for Hillary, but for Johnson or Stein, or maybe not voting for anyone.

The stock market is also waiting with bated breath for November 8. Some experts say the Bull is about to collapse, with the dollar shrinking disastrously anywhere from fifty cents to only one cent. I find either scenario unlikely. Other experts say the Bull is going to grow to epic proportions, with the Dow rising as high as 40,000 or 50,000. I find that scenario equally unlikely. But much depends on which of the two get elected. If Donald somehow pulls it off, I could see banks all over the world collapsing with a worldwide thud, an economic death knell. If Hillary is elected, the dollar and the markets might go up or down, but not very far in either direction. In just eight more days we’ll have answers.

Sunday, October 30

Halloween

Why is Gertie the witch unable to have any children? Because her husband Igor has a hollow weenie.

Yes, it’s nearly that time of year again, that dreadful evening called Halloween. Today is October 30, Halloween Eve, so I’m a day ahead of that dreaded evening, but I feel it’s necessary to get a one day jump on it. It seems that most Americans don’t regard this event as dreadful. For most it’s a festive occasion, for adults as well as children. Think of the money spent on candy and costumes, of the costume parties, of the house decorations that spring to life each October. Am I the only one who dislikes this day? I was never a fan of it when I was a young boy. In fact, I’m not sure in those days so long ago that any children went out trick-or-treating, at least not in the small Midwestern town where I grew up. And if we did, the costumes were probably all homemade, with most of us dressed as hobos. These were Depression days and we were Depression kids. It didn’t take much of a wardrobe change to turn us into hobos. Maybe all we had other than old clothes was that kerchief tied to the end of a stick.

Why did that stick and kerchief almost always designate the one who carried it to be a hobo? I go to the Net, that wonderful source of all information and knowledge, and find that the stick with cloth attached is called a bindlestiff (corruption from German—bundle and stick) and sometimes the one who carries such a stick and bundle is also called a bindlestiff. How could I bear to live without knowing that about hobos?

I do remember going to a Halloween party once where we all bobbed for apples, but I don’t think we were costumed and I don’t think we ate a bunch of candy. Most of our parents back then didn’t have enough money to spend on candy giveaways. Apples, yes, candy, no. And there was probably more tricking than treating back then, with a bar of soap the prime instrument for soaping windows and cars. As an adult, when I began my teaching career, I always feared that some disgruntled student would egg my house. Soap on a window is easily removed, but an egg on house paint is disastrous. The egging never happened but I always feared it. And every year as the end of October neared, I would grow more and more uneasy. Now, however, my wife and I live in a retirement community and no little bindlestiffs ever come knocking on our door. And no disgruntled kid ever eggs our house. I wonder how many Trump masks will be sold this year. Now, that would be costume enough to scare me out of my wits.
Oh, wait a minute, the man himself scares me out of my wits.

Friday, October 28

The Girl on the Train

I always trusted what the folks at Entertainment Weekly said about books and movies. After seeing The Girl on the Train, however, I’ll have to change my opinion. EW gave it an A- grade. I give it about a D-, and even that may be kinder than it deserves. My wife and I agreed as we were walking out that this was a film we could have easily walked out on. But no, I had to stick it out to see if it got any better. It didn’t. I remember what I disliked about the novel by Paula Hawkins. This movie remained faithful to the book and included all the unlikable parts. Where to begin? If one were to write a suspense novel, or make a movie based on that novel, one would have to include all the elements Hawkins put in. I call these elements manufactured suspense. First, be sure to include anything that would confuse the reader or viewer. Use artsy flashbacks that jump hither and yon, yon and hither. Then have many of these flashbacks based on an alcoholic’s memories before, after, and during alcoholic blackouts. Then to further confuse, overlap little pieces of these flashbacks so the reader or viewer doesn’t know what is or isn’t real. Have a cast of three lookalike women and three lookalike men, so the reader or viewer isn’t sure which is which. Oh, yes, and to spice it all up, get in plenty of shades of gray scenes to titillate the reader or viewer, like humping in bedrooms or offices or out in the woods braced against a tree. The main character, Rachel, the girl on the train, is played by Emily Blunt, who may have perfected the role of eye-rolling, hand-wringing, weepy-eyed maniac. I will howl like a demented dog if she is considered for an Oscar for this bizarre role. Not since Glenn Close played the crazy lady in Fatal Attraction have we seen a woman as weird as Emily Blunt’s Rachel. Of the many comparisons between The Girl on the Train and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl—that both are tense psychological thrillers with twists and turns to keep readers or viewers on the edge of their seats—are invalid. Gone Girl, both book and film, was by far better than The Girl on the Train. Anyone who would think this movie, The Girl on the Train, is good or great is probably casting his vote for Donald Trump on November 8.

Thursday, October 27

Funny Girl

The Arizona Broadway Theatre opened its twelfth season with Funny Girl, and again they did a wonderful job. The sets were great, the costumes so numerous I can’t believe they were all made specifically for this show. The ladies had three or four dress changes apiece, and with six females in the ensemble plus Fanny, her mother, and three women from the neighborhood, that’s a minimum of thirty-three wardrobe switches, maybe even as many as forty. ABT has a new musical director and one or two musicians added to the pit band. Unlike any of the previous shows, they played an Overture and an Entr’Act. Hard to believe how rich the music is from only seven band members. Liz Fallon, who played Princess Fiona in the August ABT presentation of Shrek, was cast as Fanny Brice, and although she was no Barbra Streisand (Who Is?), she more than held her own, especially when she softened the tone on “People” and “The Music That Makes Me Dance.” Too often on some of the bigger numbers, she and the ensemble women got a bit screechy. The same was true in too much of the dialogue—too shrill and too fast. But the show-stopper, “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” stopped the show just as it did on Broadway. The choreography was also surprisingly good, with an extended tap piece to “Rat-a-Tat.” The dancers had to be pooped at the end of the number. All in all, Funny Girl was an excellent show in a long line of excellent shows put on at the Arizona Broadway Theatre, and each season seems to get better and better. Thank you, ABT, for giving us this nearby place to see Broadway musicals. And we don’t have to drive to the East Valley to Gammage Theatre. Nor fly to New York to see these shows. We’ve got Broadway right here in our backyard.

Sunday, October 23

Scams

Now that our lives seem to be dominated by the internet and its connection to our countless devices, we’re being victimized by so many scams we can’t keep them all straight.
There’s “phishing,” which lures unsuspecting netters into going to the phisher’s fake link, entering their identification and password. That info gives the scammer access to one or more of our financial sites. So long, savings.

The Nigerian scam is so ridiculous it’s hard to believe anyone would fall for it, but as P. T. Barnum is thought to have said, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” You receive an e-mail telling you that some Nigerian potentate wants to give you a huge chunk of money just because he’s heard what a nice guy you are. All you have to do to get it is pay the legal fees for transferring the money. So long, hard-earned bucks.

There are many other scams involving our internet connections, but you get the idea. Then there are the phone calls during which a person tells you, usually in very broken English, that you’re way behind in paying back taxes and that if you don’t pay it immediately you’ll be fined bigtime by the IRS or even arrested, and if you won’t pay, you’re told with volume up and a few choice words that the sheriff will soon be at your door to put you in cuffs and haul you away. The number of such calls must be astronomical. Ours is only one of nearly 200 million households and I’ve already gotten three such calls. These numbers suggest that this phone scam dials millions and millions of phones. There must be hundreds of huge rooms filled with thousands of broken English speakers all calling to scam us.

Another phone call that may or may not be a scam—someone, usually speaking in that ubiquitous Indian dialect, tells us he’s with Microsoft technical support, or maybe Windows or Norton or some other company specializing in computer security. He sees that my computer is in danger of crashing because I’ve been hacked or I’ve opened a website that inserted malware. He asks for permission to take over my computer to show me all these dire warnings of danger. When I don’t have a clue whether this danger is real or not, I ask him if he can fix it. “Well, certainly,” he says. “That is why I am here.” Then we get to what it will cost me for this fix. Up to this time, nothing has been said about the cost for this support. For him to fix it, I’ll have to sign up for one to three years of protection with his company, costing me from $200 to $300. Only once did I agree to this charge and then found I didn’t really need their protections since I already had all kinds of protection I got when I bought the computer and even more through AOL. Were the threats real or was I conned? Was I scammed or wasn’t I?

All these present-day scams made me think of what I consider the scam of the last century—Time Shares (both words capitalized). Twenty years ago my wife and I went to Sedona, Arizona, to listen to a sales pitch. We went because the resort selling time shares promised to give us two hundred dollars just for listening, no matter if we decided to buy or not to buy. Now, we realized only afterwards, we were already living in a wonderful retirement community, a resort with all kinds of amenities, so why would we need another one? Too soon old, too late smart. We went, we saw, and we were conquered. I’d never been subjected to such a high-powered sales pitch and I fell into their trap. My wife kept saying no, but I kept saying, well, maybe. It was such a gorgeous place and the suites were so beautiful and all the amenities like the pool and the weight room were so nice. And we could even trade our time share week for another anywhere else in the world. And, oh, how persuasive these fast-talkers were. We finally agreed to an alternate-year time share for only, for only (notice how I’m stuttering?) about $10,000. But just think of the resale value of this share of time we now possessed every other year. And think of all the places we might visit for a week on our time share trades. But after trading for a week at a lovely condo on the grounds of the Chautauqua Institute on Lake Chautauqua, New York, and going to Sedona for one night, we found that we didn’t really want to go through the hassle of our time share possession. There was the annual cost of joining a company that took care of the details involved in trading a week here for a week there; there was the annual maintenance fee that seemed to go up steeply every year. We discovered when we tried to sell it that there were very few buyers. We also found out that in order to sell it we had to pay a company a fee for handling the sale. I remember asking one such representative why they couldn’t simply take a percentage of the selling price. “Oh, no,” he said. “It has to be paid up-front.” So we paid and waited for news of a sale. Never got any news. Were never able to contact the company or its representative to see what was going on. Scammed. So long, timeshare selling fee.

We also discovered that one can’t even give away a time share, that the maintenance fees continue and if not paid, there would be hell to pay and possibly even a lien put on our house. And the maintenance fees would go on forever, and even if you gave it to your children, they would be responsible for those ever-increasing, never-ending annual fees. We finally stumbled onto a company that would take our time share off our hands and relieve us of this obligation to annual maintenance fees. And it would cost US only $2500. That’s right. It would cost US that much. It was a sort of reverse sale. But we agreed to it just to get rid of that elephant on our backs. This experience is the reason for my calling Time Shares the scam of the last century. Maybe it’s now still number one in the 21st century.

Why is it that we have to learn all of life’s lessons when we’re too old for them to help us, when we no longer need them? Why can’t we already know how to avoid all of life’s mistakes and scams? Why won’t our children ever listen to us when we tell them about what we’ve learned? Sondheim wrote a song for Into the Woods, “Children Will Listen.” Stephen, they don’t listen. They really don’t.

Saturday, October 22

Denial

I’m not what I’d consider someone either ignorant of history or inattentive to current events. But I didn’t remember that anyone or any group were deniers of the facts of the Holocaust. And I don’t remember reading about this 1996 defamation trial in the UK when historian David Irving (Timothy Spall) sued Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz) asserting she’d libeled him in her book about the Holocaust. Both sides agreed to have a judge instead of a jury decide the outcome. Irving may have been tricked into that decision since the Lipstadt team felt they'd have a better chance with only one person instead of twelve. They feared that a jury might have been more easily swayed by Irving's arguments. Denial is based on Lipstadt's book recounting the experience in History on Trial: My Day in Court. In English courts (as well as those silly wigs they all have to wear) the burden of proof is on the accused, not the accuser; and the defendant is hired by a Solicitor (Andrew Scott, who won the divorce trial involving Princess Diana), and a Trial Attorney who actually presents the case in court (in this case, Richard Rampton, played very admirably by Tom Wilkinson.) The judge, after an unusually long and expensive trial, presented his finding in a manuscript over 300 pages. As Roger Ebert in his review suggested, though, this is timely for Americans still reeling from conspiracy theories like the birthers brought against Barack Obama and the present-day “rigged system” of Donald Trump. The birthers are as stupid in their contention that Barack Obama is not a U.S. citizen as these deniers were/are stupid in believing that Hitler was not responsible for the murder of millions of Jews, that there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz, that the chambers were for delousing cadavers and the crematoriums were only for disposing of dead bodies. As the film points out, it was important that Irving not win this case so that deniers for all time could never again argue that there was no Holocaust, no murder of these millions of Jews to “cleanse” the Aryan race. The acting was good, especially that of Weisz and Wilkinson and the oh-so-sleazy portrayal of Irving by Timothy Spall, but the story was slow-moving, with an outcome we all knew beforehand, and was a bit too dialogue-driven. Maybe the most compelling scenes were when Lipstadt and her legal team went to Auschwitz to see firsthand where it took place, to see if they could find evidence to support their contention that the Holocaust actually happened there. It was a quiet, somber, snow-covered scene that showed viewers what this horrific place looked like half a century after the horrors of WWII. We saw the barbed wire fencing around the site, we saw the mountains of hand bags, valises, shoes of the victims, we saw what remained of the underground gas chambers after the Nazis blew them up at the end of the war to eliminate any evidence of their wrongdoing. God help us, please let us never again witness the atrocities that man can perpetrate on his fellow man. I’m glad I saw this film. Huzzahs for Rachel Weisz, Tom Wilkinson, and Timothy Spall, but I wouldn’t want to see it again. Two stars out of four.

Thursday, October 20

Bob Dylan, Lovely Valley, & the Final Trump

Bob Dylan was awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature. What!? Did the Nobel committee think an American was overdue for this award and the best they could come up with was Bob Dylan? And now they’re tossing him in with such great American writers as William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, and Eugene O’Neill? Those gentlemen must be just spinning in their graves. Winston Churchill must have nearly bitten his cigar in half. Robert Frost must be mumbling, “You picked him and you didn’t pick me?” Alfred Nobel must be shaking his head. Even Dylan Thomas, whose first name Bob Zimmerman chose as his name because he so admired the Welshman’s poetry, must be muttering about this ridiculous Nobel choice. I agree vociferously with Kurt Vonnegut, who in 1991 said in an interview that “Bob Dylan is the worst poet alive.” I might add that he’s one of the worst singers also. What about some poets who are actually poets, not just someone who’s “blowin’ in the wind.” Maya Angelou comes to mind. Annie Dillard comes to mind. Do the committee members actually think Bob Dylan belongs in the same league with T. S. Eliot and William Butler Yeats? It even took Dylan a week to acknowledge their choice. What, did he think it was beneath him? Maybe they’ll come to their senses in 2017 and find someone better qualified than Bob Dylan. Almost anyone. But if they choose Mick Jagger I’ll really throw up my hands. Or maybe I’ll just throw up.

We’re into the really good times in the Valley of the Sun—clear skies, low humidity, mid-eighties. And the male mockingbirds are singing up a storm because they’re so happy. Or maybe they’re just announcing how horny they are. What beautiful songs they sing, passages copied from other songbirds and put together in a series of warbles, whistles, cheeps, chups, and chirrs, and some even include sounds borrowed from dogs and cats. I wonder if any of our boys—Tiger, Tuffy, or Charlie—hear themselves in a mockingbird song as they sit out on the patio with us. We had another surprise just outside our patio. There was a weed, or at least we thought it was a weed, growing in the backyard. We didn’t get around to pulling it and it grew very nicely to about a foot and a half. Then we noticed that it had several blossom buds, which turned into the cutest, daintiest little flowers. We’re so happy we didn’t pull it up. Even a weed deserves to show its beauty. Here’s what it looks like. Pretty, isn’t it?

I must say something final about last night's debate. This was the last time both candidates would be able to show voters their class and composure, show some presidential decorum. Hillary did, Donald didn't.



































































































































































































































































































Wednesday, October 19

Mind-Boggling Numbers

I just read in the news that astronomers now believe the universe is considerably larger than previously thought, like twenty times bigger, with twenty times as many galaxies as first thought. The numbers are staggering. Our minds simply can’t relate to them. The galaxy, they believe, has an expanding diameter of 93 million light years and at least two trillion galaxies. A light year is the distance that light travels in a year, about six trillion miles. See, these numbers are almost too huge to comprehend. I now know what a mind boggle is. We live on the planet earth in a minor galaxy we call the Milky Way. It looks milky because the number of stars in it are so tightly packed to our eye that it looks like a continuous patch of light like milk. And our little solar system is situated out on the edge of our galaxy, with millions of other solar systems closer to the center. The triple star system known as Alpha Centauri is our closest neighbor in our galaxy, a mere 4.37 light years away. Our Milky Way is only one of two trillion. Boggling. I remember from many years ago on 20-20 a simulation that showed viewers what our outer and inner limits were. First, the outer. We saw an overhead camera shot of a couple lying on a beach in Illinois, probably on Lake Michigan near Chicago. At about three-second intervals, the view moved up, squaring the distance for each shot. Up and up and up, until the couple was gone, Chicago was gone, Lake Michigan was gone, the U.S. was gone, the earth became a ball, then a dot as the view moved out of our solar system to show only our sun, which became a red ball, then a dot, and then our galaxy as it too became a spot, then a dot, then the coalescing of galaxies into a super galaxy which also became a spot, then a dot among countless other dots. And with us all holding our breath, the camera view paused, then came back to earth in rapid motion, back to the sun and earth and the U.S., back to Chicago and the couple lying on that Lake Michigan beach. Then it showed us the same thing inwardly, ending up with tiny atomic structures that looked alarmingly like the galactic images we’d seen on our outward journey. Boggling. It was hard then as it still is today to take oneself too seriously in light of knowing just how tiny we are, how petty our concerns.

Another set of numbers too large to comprehend. I also read in the news that each of our F-35 fighter jets costs about 100 million dollars to produce and that the total defense cost for the F-35’s and their successors is around a trillion dollars. A trillion dollar bills strung end to end would reach to the moon and back not once but twice. Boggling. If we lived in a saner, more peaceful world, we might use that money to pursue what President Obama has been encouraging, a plan to colonize Mars. Others believe we should be concentrating on a moon base instead. The next frontier is space and the next step is the outer limits of our solar system. Except for the oceans on earth, we’ve pretty much run out of frontiers here. I can see that sometime in the future, if we can somehow avoid killing ourselves and destroying the earth, we’ll find a way to travel in space ships at or near the speed of light. That’s Star Trek stuff but may be possible. We’ll probably also find a way to harness the 80% of man’s brain that we aren’t currently using. Mental telepathy isn’t hard to imagine. I’m too old to be around for much what may lie ahead, but I can dream of it. And now I just have to find some way to live through the third debate and the coming election on November 8. After all, Donald Trump seems to be using only about 5% of his brain.

Tuesday, October 18

Some Trump Doggeral

How could I possibly resist. Doggeral verse and Donald Trump go hand in hand.

Dumpty Trumpty
Sittin’ on a wall,
Scared to look down
For fear he might fall.

But his fall’s inevitable,
He just can’t win,
A fate so bettable,
Just go to the bank and cash it in.

And when he falls
The yokes on him,
Better that
Than a deep-water swim.

With his feet in his mouth
He’d sink like a rock,
And the folks down South
Wouldn’t show him a dock.

Just an arm-waving clown
Who scared us with claims
Of what he might do
While groping the dames.

‘Bout Barack Obama
You gave us some mirth
That he was illegal,
Had a Muslimy birth.

So long, Donald,
We won’t see you again,
Until the next Apprentice,
And we won’t watch you then.

Monday, October 17

Three Movie Reviews

Three movie reviews, two on very old films and one brand new.

First, On Golden Pond. Henry Fonda plays the old curmudgeon Nathan Thayer, and Fonda here is the very embodiment of the word “Curmudgeon,” feisty, argumentative, and cantankerous to the core. He and his wife Ethel (Katherine Hepburn) return to their summer cottage on what was called a pond but looked more like an extensive lake nestled in the New England setting. Everyone knows the story adapted from the play by Ernest Thompson—Nathan and Ethel reopen the cottage, daughter Chelsea (Jane Fonda) and her boyfriend Bill (Dabney Coleman) pay them a visit. They’re hoping that Nathan and Ethel will care for Bill’s 13-year-old son Billy while they take a trip to Europe. Conflicts abound. Nathan and Chelsea have never gotten along. Billy at first wants no part of these old codgers. Good story. Great acting. But when I thought about Henry Fonda and his acting career, I came up nearly empty. I’m cursed with a cinematic memory that sees and remembers nearly every movie I’ve ever seen, remembers nearly all of the films by other male stars back then. To name only a few, I can recite chapter and verse about the films of Gary Cooper, Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Jimmy Stewart, Humphrey Bogart, or Paul Newman (Ah, yes, old blue eyes Newman). Yet when I thought of Fonda, all I could pull up were The Grapes of Wrath and Golden Pond. I knew he must have starred in countless films, many of which had to be Westerns, but these two were the only ones I remembered. Even when I went to IMDB to check him out, all I found that I remembered were Red River, The Ox-Bow Incident, and 12 Angry Men. Red River was more memorable for John Wayne and Montgomery Clift than for Fonda. Same with The Ox-Bow Incident, a movie that I loved in my youth. No Fonda. In 12 Angry Men, another of my early favorites, I could see Lee J. Cobb and Jack Klugman, but no Fonda. How odd. I would like to remember him for his entire body of work, but instead I remember only two clearly and three vaguely. Sorry about that, Henry.

Another film we found on Netflix, Deliverance, the film adaptation of the James Dickey novel. This one I remembered vividly. Burt Reynolds is the macho man (You know, hairy, muscular arms and chest) who convinces his three buddies to go with him on a canoe trip down a Georgia river before the river becomes a huge dam. Ed (John Voight), Billie (Ned Beatty), and Drew (Ronnie Cox) accompany him despite their misgivings about the danger. The single most memorable scene is when Drew and a young backwoods musical savant engage in a banjo/guitar duel to see who can outplay whom. That pretty much sets the stage for the downriver ride, a duel between the city-goers and the dangerous backcountry and the dangerous denizen of the region. When Ed and Billie go ashore for a break, two locals find them and hold them prisoner, Ed strung up to a tree and Billie forced to strip, while one of the locals rides him like a pig, forcing him to squeal like a pig while he rapes him. Just before Ed is about to suffer the same indignity, Louis shoots and kills one of them with a bowshot through the chest. The other local flees. The four of them decide to bury the body to avoid a trial for murder before a local jury that would undoubtedly find them guilty. They then continue their journey downriver. The next day, Drew either falls overboard or he was shot from the cliffs above the river. The three of them make it through a section of rapids where they rest along shore, but fear that the other local is somewhere above them, waiting to pick them off one at a time. Louis has been seriously injured in the ride through the rapids and now becomes the weak link and Ed becomes the strong. Ed climbs the vertical cliff walls to wait for their assailant. What a great action film, what a great testament to strength and weakness, to present and past. I can remember this film as vividly as any film I’ve ever seen.

And finally, another film I’ll probably always remember, Ben Affleck’s The Accountant. The review were mixed, about fifty-fifty on Rotten Tomatoes. For some reason, a lot of the people in the industry don’t much care for Affleck despite his honors as actor and director of such films as The Town, Argo, and Gone Girl. In The Accountant, he does an autistically deadpan acting job playing Chris Wolfe, an accountant for various crime syndicates, helping them launder money. Besides being a mathematical genius, he was also a crack shot with pistol or rifle and a killer karate expert. Lots of questions about how he came to be and how he became part of these illegal operations. Enter Dana (Anna Kendrick), a junior accountant for a firm involving robotics. She’s discovered an odd discrepancy in the firm’s books and Chris is hired to find it. The story involves many questions about who are the bad guys and who the good. But after two hours, all of the plot questions are answered, despite one or two of the answers somewhat contrived. This was a better movie than I thought it would be, and I give it four stars out of five. Hey, Ben Affleck, I like you and I don’t care what the Hollywoodites say.

Friday, October 14

Trump, Clinton, & Harassment

We’re in the middle of the most divisive presidential election in our entire history. We have two flawed candidates trying to out-insult each other for their character failings. And they have plenty of character failings between them. And the nation and the world is wondering why in a nation of over three million people we couldn’t find two better candidates. The truth, though, is that anyone who now chooses to run for any high office is scrutinized more closely than anyone in the past. Their every word, spoken or written now or at any time in their past, can now be found instantly and held up for the world to see. Their every action now or then is available to be put on display. Anyone who now chooses to run for any high office has to be either angelically pure or entirely crazy. Do you suppose that if we had been able to examine past leaders as closely as we now can that we’d probably discover them to have character flaws, to have lied, cheated, contradicted themselves, shown weakness or anger? Think of FDR and John F., think of Richard Nixon (No, don’t think of him; it’s just too painful.) In light of their failings, we may not have wanted to vote for them. In other words, they were all merely human, not angels. And our two present candidates are certainly not angels, merely human. Donald Trump is being shown as misogynistic, bullying, ego-maniacal, and politically and historically stupid. Even though he’s only human, he’s also unfit to be our president. Hillary Clinton is being shown as lying, showing poor judgement with her e-mails, enabling husband Bill in his extra-marital affairs, maybe even being guilty of perjury in her testimony about Benghazi. She’s only human, but of the two she’s the best we’ve got. Thank God we have less than a month before we can put this road show to rest.

And while I’m on the subject of Donald Trump, let’s talk about all these women now coming out of the woodwork to accuse him of harassment or sexual assault or even rape. The whole concept of harassment is annoyingly vague. What one person may view as a show of affection, another may see as harassment. How in the world do we determine which is which? At what point does touching become groping? At what point does a kiss require mutual agreement between the two parties? At what point does it become harassment, or even further, become sexual assault? I’m not excusing Trump. He’s still a disgusting person (That sounds like something he’d say, doesn’t it?) But it does seem like we’re making sexual mountains out of disgusting molehills. They should both try to talk about what they would do to run our country, not about what’s so wrong with the other person.

Wednesday, October 12

Ed McBain's Style

Here I go again, talking about an author’s style. And, as I’ve said before, style is such a tough concept to explain. Broadly, it includes meanings, metaphoric language, descriptions, cadences, word choices, sentence structure. In other words, style really is the man or, not to be sexist, woman. Salvatore Lambino, Evan Hunter, Ed McBain started out in his 87th Precinct series as a pulp writer of cop stories, grinding out short novels pretty much like all the other pulp writers were doing back in the 50’s and 60’s (John D. MacDonald—remember Travis McGee?—and Mickey Spillane—remember Mike Hammer?—to name only two of the better known). Not necessarily well-written but eminently sale-able. But both MacDonald and Ed McBain took it up several notches as their series continued, with styles that kept getting better and better. And now I’d like to examine a sentence from McBain’s Vespers, a novel written late in his career, a sentence that shows the beauty of his cadences and word choices and sentence structure. Please bear with me as I first talk about it in those irritating traditional grammatical terms, and then illustrate the structure using my shorthand method.

Here’s the passage: “Men and women strolled together [with] hand in hand, glancing into brightly lighted store windows, buying pretzels or hot dogs or ice cream or yogurt, or souvlaki or sausages from the bazaar of peddlers’ carts on almost every corner, browsing the several bookstores that would be open till midnight, checking out the sidewalk wares of the nighttime street merchants, stopping to listen to a black tenor saxophonist playing a soulful rendition of Birth of the Blues, the fat mellow notes floating out of the bell of his golden horn and soaring upward on the balmy air. It was a night for lovers.” (Vespers, Ed McBain)

First, he begins simply with “Men and women strolled together hand in hand.” It was I and not McBain who inserted the understood preposition (with). Simple enough, right? A compound subject, intransitive verb, pair of prepositional phrases telling how they strolled. And then his words begin strolling leisurely along after that opening clause. We find five present participial phrases in a row, all pointing back to the “men and women” but also feeling adverbial because they all partially explain how they strolled. The second participle (buying) has six objects. The third participle (browsing) has an object that’s modified by an adjective clause (that would be open). The fifth participle (stopping) does some strolling of its own with an infinitive (to listen) explaining why they stopped, then a prepositional phrase with the object “saxophonist” modified by “playing.” And finally we have a participle (floating) that has its own subject (notes) and attaches itself loosely, adverbially, to the verbal “playing.” And then he finishes with the lovely, short sentence in contrast to the previous lazy sentence: “It was a night for lovers.” What you just read in this paragraph is the old-school grammatical explanation of the structure of this sentence, and almost no one either understands what I just said or cares about what I just said. So, again, bear with me. Here’s what the sentences look like in my simplified version of sentence structure.
I don't know if McBain was aware of the structures he was using or if he was simply playing it by ear. Some writers know the grammatical way they write and do so like a pianist looking at sheet music; some writers (I suspect it's most writers) just feel the way they want to say something and do so like that lucky pianist who doesn't need any sheet music. Faulkner, one of the greatest stylists of all time, probably wrote by feel rather than by grammatical structure. Hemingway wrote by grammatical structure and would agonize over sentences for hours before finally settling on what he considered acceptable. I think I miss the classroom and wish I was in front of a classroom full of writers who were listening attentively to my explanation of what McBain did in this passage. I hope I have at least one reader, one fledgling writer, who takes my instruction to heart.

Tuesday, October 11

Artificial Intelligence

On 60 Minutes last Sunday, we watched an exciting/frightening segment on AI, or “artificial intelligence” for those not already familiar with the acronym AI. It was exciting in showing us the technological possibilities that lie in our futures, our very near futures, and frightening in the potential malevolence of man versus machine. What happens when machines become so much more intelligent than man that they might not feel any need for mankind? It’s an idea that’s been considered for a long time, both philosophically and science fictionally. Descartes considered it almost four hundred years ago, and Isaac Asimov in his I Robot series almost seventy years ago devised his Three Laws of Robotics: 1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. 2. A robot must obey the orders given it by a human being except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. 3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Intelligence is one thing, but Man has emotions or feelings that are unrelated to intelligence, that make him human. Can robots be created that have, in addition to their intelligence or knowledge, an understanding of emotions? Even more than understanding, can they actually have those feelings or emotions? And if so, won’t they be almost godlike? We already have computers that by a human being can't be defeated at chess. We already have virtual assistants on our phones, tablets, and computers who (Note the humanizing pronoun?) speak to us, answer our questions, do our bidding. We have Siri, Cortana, Alexa, Google, and Facebook M. Raj on The Big Bang Theory admitted to falling in love with his phone assistant Siri. In the film Her, Joaquin Phoenix fell in love with his phone operating system (And who wouldn’t fall in love with Scarlet Johansson’s voice conversing with us, even having a little phone sex with us?)
In Ex Machina, Alicia Vikander played the lovely robotic lady who left Caleb, the young programmer, in the locked mountain retreat to go out in the world on her own.

So, what does the future of AI hold for us? Will we be able to include in their AI psyches a set of 21st Century Laws that will circumvent any harm they might do to mankind? Will these machines, or very human robots, continue to help mankind reach for the stars, or will they subjugate us to do their bidding? I don’t know. But it seems that this AI consideration is right on our doorstep. Will we be ready for it or is it already too late? See? Exhilarating in the possible positives of AI. Terrifying in the possible negatives of AI.

Saturday, October 8

Magnificent Seven

If I added up all the people killed in all the Westerns I’ve ever seen, the number wouldn’t be even a tenth as many as were killed in the remake of The Magnificent Seven. Man, there were bodies everywhere. It would take the undertaker about a decade to get them all buried and the last dozen or so would be pretty stinky. I didn’t know what to expect. All I knew was that Denzel was in it, for the first time as a cowboy in a Western. We just had to see it . . . him. And, yes, he was very good—unsmiling, steely-eyed, stoic to the n-th degree. And he could twirl a revolver like a real gunslinger. I wonder how long he had to practice to do it without breaking a finger or two. The plot was simple, and pretty much the same as in the original MagSeven. In 1879, a small frontier town, Rose Creek, is being taken over by Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard), a ruthless mining tyrant, and when Bogue shoots and kills Mathew Cullen (Matt Bonner), his wife Emma (Haley Bennett) rides out to find someone who can help them. She meets Sam Chisholm (Denzel Washington), a bounty hunter, and convinces him to come to their aid. He agrees when he hears the name of the man who is trying to take over Rose Creek. Agrees because of something in his past that involved Bogue. Along their way to Rose Creek, he finds and recruits six others who are willing to take up the fight—a mixed bag of ethnic and racial gunfighters (and one who is really good with bow and arrow): Chisholm, a black man; Farraday (Chris Pratt) a drunken Irishman; Goodnight Robicheau (Ethan Hawke), a Civil War hero who’s a crack shot with a rifle; Billy Rocks (Lee Byun-hun), an Oriental equally skilled with knives as well as pistols; Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), a Mexican; Jack Home (Vincent D’Onofrio), a bear of a mountain man with a high squeaky voice; and Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier), a Comanche with nothing better to do. In maybe the best-known Western shootout in all of the Western mythology, the shootout at the OK Corral in Tombstone, Arizona, we had the Earp brothers against the Clanton brothers. That famous fight took thirty seconds and involved thirty shots, and only three men were killed. And the fight was from very close range. In The Magnificent Seven, everybody seems able to pick riders off their horses from hundreds of yards with revolvers held in both hands, and the final confrontation between the townspeople and the Seven against Bogue’s hundred or more lasted for about thirty minutes with about a hundred and fifty killed. The violence was so lengthy and so many were killed in various bloody ways that it became almost laughable. And yes, there were some very funny moments in the film, especially that old chestnut about the man who fell from a five-story building and was heard to say when he passed each floor, “So far, so good!” And most of the theatergoers got a disgusted chuckle when Red Harvest invited Chisholm to have a bite of a raw deer liver he'd just cut out. Mm mmm, good. What was best about this version of Seven? The authenticity of the town and its buildings, the beauty of the setting, the magnificent score from the original film, and, of course, Denzel.

Friday, October 7

The Voice

The Voice is back for its 11th season, this time with two coaches to replace Christina Aguilera and Pharrell Williams. Now we have Alicia Keyes and Miley Cyrus to join Adam Levine and Blake Shelton. Miley is a flake, but a funny, colorful flake with her sewn-flower outfit and machinegun chatter. Alicia is lovely and makes a good fit with the other three. Some preliminary articles wondered if there might not be some friction between the two ladies, sort of like what we saw on American Idol when Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj went at each other like two cats in heat. Didn’t happen. The two ladies now act as a buffer between Adam and Blake, who continue their good-natured banter, each trying to outdo the other in their insults. It’s all part of the act that makes this show so highly rated. They’ve now concluded the blind auditions with each judge having twelve on their team, forty-eight altogether. Next up will be the battle rounds (or the dueling duos, as I like to call them) in which each judge pairs two of their team to battle it out in a song chosen by the judge. The judge then decides which of the two should remain, which to go home. But, the other three judges can use one of their two steals to take the loser. That will get them down to thirty-two for the knockout round in which each judge pits two team members against each other, singing a song chosen by the contestant, after which the judge will pick the winner and loser. Each judge, though, has one steal to get a loser onto their team. The knockout round will bring them to twenty for the live shows. It’s all very complicated, but also fascinating to watch as each judge tries to out-coach the others. Adam seemed to throw up his hands when he picked his last two in the blind auditions, Natasha Bure and Ponciano Seoane (now there’s a name to reckon with), almost as though he just wanted to get it over with to move on to the battle rounds. Neither of them will make it any further and no one will want to steal them. Another curious one on Adam’s team is a young crooner named Riley Elmore. He stands absolutely no chance of moving on. A singer who croons would have to be as good as Michael Bublé to succeed, and Riley is certainly no Bublé. Others on Adam’s team who will probably advance: Simone Gundy, Bindi Liebowitz, Nolan Neal, and Billy Gilman. I’m picking Gilman to be one of the four finalists. It’s still too early to know how anyone on Blake’s team will fare, but here are the five that might make it: Dana Harper, Sundance Head (another name to reckon with), Blaine Long, Austin Allsup, and Courtney Harrell. Miley’s team has only two males, and I can’t remember who they are or how they sang. Here are four that may make it: Maye Thomas (a lookalike for Lady Gaga), Ali Caldwell, Sophia Urista, and Darby Walker. The other singer I think will be in the final four is on Alicia’s team. Wé McDonald is only seventeen but she has a 30-year-old voice. Others on Alicia’s team that may make it: Christian Cuevas, Lauren Diaz, Dave Moisan, and another curiosity, two sisters, Whitney and Shannon, singing as a duo. What will they call it when and if these two compete in the Battle round against another singer? Can’t be a duet with three of them, the two sisters sort of ganging up on the other contestant. I can hardly wait for next Monday to see how they all do.

Wednesday, October 5

Kaine-Pence Debate

The rules of debate in high school are much different from what we saw last night in the vice-presidential clash between Tim Kaine and Mike Pence. Debate is usually meant to show two sides arguing civilly about a debate topic. Whoa! We certainly didn’t see any civility last night. First and foremost in either debate system (high school or congressional) the opponents are supposed to wait their turn. One answers the moderator’s question, then the other offers a rebuttal, but during either answer or rebuttal, neither debate participant is supposed to interrupt the other. Well, that went out the window early on. Kaine did more interrupting than Pence, but both were almost equally guilty. It became apparent almost from the beginning that this would be a contest between two hatchet men, Kaine wielding the hatchet for Hillary Clinton and Pence the hatchet for Donald Trump. Both had their moments of addressing their running mates’ policy proposals, but both then went into shouting mode about the faults of the two presidential nominees. Their hatchet assignments, apparently, were to restate and underscore the faults of both candidates, faults we’ve already heard over and over again—Clinton’s carelessness with national security in her private e-mails, the Clinton Foundation’s misuse of donations, the Iran nuclear deal, the Benghazi fiasco, and her unfortunate word choice describing Trump supporters as “deplorable”; Trump’s insults of women, Mexicans, Muslims, the disabled, soldiers suffering from PTSD, John McCain, and just about anyone else who dares to contradict him, his tax returns, his Russian connections and admiration for Putin. For ninety minutes they shouted, growled, interrupted, and paid little attention to debate moderator Elaine Quijano, CBS news journalist. Who won? Neither. This wasn’t about winning or losing. It was about reminding the national audience why we should or shouldn’t vote for either candidate. And it was just another indication of how strangely awful this election has become. Come on, come on, November 8th. You just can’t get here soon enough.

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